The Borders Distillery
Last week (18th April 2018) I headed down to Hawick to check out The Borders Distillery and chatted to two of the Founders Tony Roberts and John Fordyce, who along with Tim Carton and George Tait setup The Three Stills Company Limited and established The Borders Distillery.
Tell us a little about your distillery?
Established in the old Hawick Electrical Company buildings on the bank of the river Tweed, John informed me of the industrial past of the region. Including the invention of Tweed fabric, the mills that operated here and the Sweet factory that used to be adjacent to the site. All of this history has been incorporated into the new distillery where possible, including the recycling and reclamation of a significant amount of materials used in the distillery construction.
Our process water for distilling is drawn from a 17m deep bore hole, whilst cooling water is drawn from the River Tweed. Much as the local industry, including the Sweet factory, would have used.
Batches of 5 tonnes of un-peated malted barley are delivered at the back of the distillery, milled in their 4 roller AR3000 mill, capable of milling 3 tonnes per hour, and fed up to visitor level before entering their stainless steel semi-lauter mash tun. The traditional 3 water mash process is performed with the first two heading to the washbacks and the 3rd re-used as the 1st on the next batch.
Everything at the distillery is manually operated, there is no need for computers here, explained John. The 8x 25,000L stainless steel washbacks are setup in parallel, allowing manual operation of the valves meaning they can fill the still with any combination of wort from different washbacks. With fermentation times of between 56-72 hours, John could barely contain his excitement on the subject of yeast too.
The steam-coil heated stills themselves are perfectly balanced in pairs, 2 x 12,500L charges into the wash stills, through shell and tube condensers and via the low-wines safe are collected and 2 x 7,500 charges are fed into the spirit stills, again spirit is collected by shell and tube condensers and cuts made in a second spirit safe.
All perfectly simple, yet incredibly flexible. Casks are filled here but stored on warehousing off-site in another area of town. The four pot stills have been named after the four founders, though which was named after whom no-one seemed quite certain.
The whole distilling operation can be run by a crew of 2 or 3, and the whole distillery including the visitor centre will have a staff of around 20. Everyone working here however will spend a week learning how to run the distillery and how to distil, that way our visitors will learn from first-hand experienced tour guides as to how we make our whisky.
John also showed me their 3-storey high externally heated Carter Head Gin still with its unique spirit safe. Here baskets of botanicals are manually cranked all the way up to the top for a single vapour pass through them, producing a lighter and brighter flavoured Gin spirit.
How the early period has been?
The four founders have all served time in the whisky industry in various roles and yet with time had moved on whilst still keeping in touch. The concept for the distillery was originally raised by John during a catch up lunch just before Christmas 2012. As the wine and conversation flowed on into the evening Tony said, by the end they had gone from plans to build a distillery to establishing a successful worldwide brand competing with and beating established giants of the industry.
Into 2013 and the idea still feasible, and favourable, they set about making it reality and finding funding. We didn’t foresee funding we hoped to establish in 6 months taking around 2 years to secure, explained Tony.
Finally, in November 2015 Malcolm Offord, owner of Edinburgh-based investment company Badenoch & Co led a group of prominent private investors who along with the support secured from the Ballande family (France), Drake Enterprises (Switzerland) and the Duke of Buccleuch succeeded in securing the £10 million investment needed.
Thereafter things moved very quickly indeed, with the option to purchase the building in Hawick already established it was purchased within 24 hours of money landing in our account. Malcolm was made chairman of The Three Stills Company (TTSC).
From there it all happened in a rush of activity as the building was stripped out, refurbished, stills and equipment arrived in August 2017 and finally distilling commenced in March 2018. Making it the first time spirit had flowed in the Borders since 1837. Even the refit was done using as much local tradesmen and expertise where possible to benefit the town and region and up to 70% of their construction costs were spent locally.
Is your vision for the future unchanged?
Not really, even way back in the early days we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do. Establishing distilling in the Borders and Hawick in particular, a town that already enjoys a high level of tourism. The following days are filled with press invitations, open days for our industry partners and funders as a way to say thank you for their support. We have engaged with local pubs and bars, who have been very excited about the prospect of their own local whisky producer and stocking and promoting our products. We have our 1837 private cask owners club for those wanting to purchase into our single malt whisky production and our focus going forward is very much on single malt whisky. We have our blends; the more traditional Clan Fraser brand of blended scotch whisky and Lower East Side blended malt whisky focussed more at the on trade and cocktails and our Gin is expected to be launched for the summer this year (2018).
What you are looking forward to?
Having people come and visit us. Since our website went live I get an email each time someone books onto a tour of our distillery, each morning I still get excited to see how many people want to come, explained Tony. Each visitor to our distillery is a potential customer and ambassador for us. People are already making the effort to come here and see what we do and how we are doing it, we want them to have a great experience and take away a little bit of that with them. This is the reasoning behind having all the staff learn how to operate the distillery. They don’t want to come and hear a generic tour talk about how whisky is made. In fact distillery visitors these days, admitted Tony, are generally much more knowledgeable about how whisky is made and come armed with detailed and specific questions. We want to be able to listen to our visitors and answer their questions directly from experience.
The distillery is due to open May 1st and we are relishing having our first tour groups, with plenty booked in already. I received the impression from John he was incredibly excited to see just what they could do with their new distillery and all its distilling equipment. After that we will wait on our first single malt whisky due to be released when it is ready.
The Borders Distillery, Commercial Road, Hawick, TD9 7AQ